Critical minerals like lithium are key to the clean energy transition, but the mining industry’s problematic treatment of the environment and communities near extraction sites has raised concerns that the energy revolution may usher in its own wave of destruction.
Now the Rocky Mountain Institute is out with six solutions to help address concerns about mineral demand, as countries from Canada to Saudi Arabia move to solidify their access to critical reserves.
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“Mineral scarcity may be real or hyped—for example, to reduce electric vehicles’ competition with oil, or to raise commodity or mining stock prices for speculators,” writes RMI co-founder and past chair Amory Lovins.
“Some minerals may raise legitimate concerns besides scarcity, such as child labour, corruption, and other abuses in artisanal cobalt mining; undue dependence on Chinese ores and processing plants; or the water use and environmental damage of mining,” he adds. But there are also many “powerful and multiplicative solutions” that those projections ignore, with the result that they may overstate the need for future mining.
More Energy Per Kilogram
Technological advances have nearly tripled battery energy storage per kilogram since 2010, says Lovins, helping to drive down battery costs by reducing the amount of raw material they require. Continuing development will likely build on that trend. Lithium-ion batteries’ energy density could double by 2025, he writes, “so projections based on old energy densities substantially overstate needed mining.”
Longer Lifespans, More Reuse
Research and new developments are extending average battery lifespan, meaning that new units will need to be produced less frequently. “Million-mile batteries are emerging, so their lifetime could soon become as irrelevant an issue as the speed of your modem,” Lovins writes. And “the longer batteries last, the more vehicle-miles their materials can support.” Recent innovations have also “reincarnated” used EV batteries as stationary storage for the electricity grid, so that efforts to expand electric vehicle use and grid infrastructure can complement each other, with less overall requirement for raw materials.
‘Mining’ Used Batteries
“Recycled lithium battery cells are about 17 times richer sources of nickel, four to five of lithium, and 10 of cobalt than their respective natural ores,” Lovins says, and companies are investing in recycling infrastructure to tap into that potential. After factoring in the benefits of more efficient, longer lasting batteries, recycling plants can already supply about one-tenth of the materials needed for the global EV fleet. He notes that the resource loop for lead has nearly been closed, with very little new resource being mined due to increased recycling.
New Battery Chemistries
Novel electrolytes—like manganese-zinc or manganese-aluminum, which need no materials that are scarce, costly, toxic, or flammable—can work like rechargeable lithium batteries and might displace mined minerals in the clean energy supply chain, Lovins explains. Countries like India are emphasizing novel electrolyte research in their national battery strategies, aiming to diversity their supplies and avoid becoming dependent on countries that can dominate access to raw materials.
Another key variable that analysts often overlook is the growing efficiency of battery-powered vehicles. “Advantageous reductions in mass, aerodynamic drag, and rolling resistance—improvements in the physics of the vehicle rather than the efficiency of its electric powertrain—can cut required battery capacity for the same driving range,” Lovins says. Some new vehicle models are “so efficient that they can power a normal commuting cycle just by solar cells on their upper surface.”
Efficient Mobility Through Better Policy
More efficient vehicle use, new mobility business models, better urban design and public policy, and virtual mobility strategies that “send electrons, leave heavy nuclei at home” can all “dramatically affect future needs for autos and driving,” he writes. When more efficient mobility is combined with the other five solutions, “high forecasts of demand for mined battery materials look highly uncertain, and potentially wrong by large factors.”
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